COMMENTARY | What happened, Denny?
Just last week, I wrote about how I was proud to see Denny Hamlin stand firm that he was going to fight NASCAR's decision to fine him for comments he made after the Phoenix race about the (lack of) passing ability from the Gen 6 cars.
He insisted he was not over the line in his comments, and it was not a punishment he was going to accept, and an appeal was coming. He even said he didn't care if he ended up getting suspended for not paying the fine.
What a difference a few days make.
Turns out Denny isn't going to fight the good fight, even though thousands of fans were right along side him with the hashtag #standwithdenny all over Twitter, and his Joe Gibbs Racing team was also fully supportive.
The worst part of the whole thing is there are drivers out there who still find fault in what Hamlin did, which is absolutely ridiculous. Chief among those who defend NASCAR's fine, of course, is Jimmie Johnson, who wouldn't dare say anything NASCAR might find remotely offensive -- the definition of a company man.
Jimmie is out of touch and doesn't like public airing of grievances even if they're called for.
"The way I see it Denny is still paying right? So he is still paying his fine. It's crystal clear to me that if you have an issue about this car you go inside the truck and talk about it," Johnson said Friday. "You don't use (a microphone) or this room to communicate that. You go up into the truck and talk about it."
This is a weak point of view, and only reinforces how scared some of these drivers have gotten when it comes to bowing to Brian France and crew. It's a sad state of affairs.
Hamlin got in a bit of a shot at folks like Johnson on Friday, saying: "The biggest thing is I think that we won in the judge of the people and their opinion I think some of the peers of mine, at least the ones that have a backbone had the nerve to stick up for what they know is right and wrong, agreed. ... Everyone wants to stay on NASCAR's good side and so that ultimately plays a lot of what you hear in interviews -- 90 percent of what you hear on a weekly basis is just guys that are trying to stay on NASCAR's good side. There's very few that really give the honest and true truth."
But then came the capitulation to NASCAR that I feared was inevitable and Hamlin ending up giving.
"What was the point in going another week or so. We've got bigger fish to fry than to argue over what I said just for $25,000 and it's better just to move on and let NASCAR get its credibility back and they're going to do that and I'm going to move on and just focus on a championship."
It's true that in the end, Hamlin did win the battle of public opinion, and those who agree with Jimmie Johnson really are in the minority. But the sad part of Hamlin's refusal to fight is that it's representative of a terrible reality in this sport: Pretty much all the drivers are afraid to fight NASCAR in any way, shape or form, even if they believe they are right and NASCAR is wrong.
And that, point blank, is bad for the sport.
Evidence of that comes from Hamlin himself, who had this answer when asked if he would be fully honest when answering questions about the car in the future:
"I don't know. I will have to really, honestly think about that. I think as long as I can give 100 percent honest answer and not get in trouble then I will answer the question. If I know my answer could have repercussions, I will just refer to no comment."
Great. Hamlin and everyone will now just say, "no comment", or just blindly praise the car, for fear of punishment. Hamlin will now become one of those drivers he had just criticized for just doing everything they can to stay on NASCAR's good side.
And in the course of a week, this story has now changed from being about a driver finally standing up to the NASCAR brass, to being about yet another driver bowing to their punishment even if it isn't just.
A sad state of affairs is the only way to describe it.
Matt Myftiu lives in Michigan, has been a walking encyclopedia of NASCAR since immersing himself in the sport over 15 years ago, and has worked as a journalist for two decades. His blog on the sport, NASCAR: Beyond the Track, has been published by The Oakland Press for the past 5 years. Follow him on Twitter @MattMyftiu.
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